io9 is skeptical…

Robert Gonzalez from io9 is skeptical about the promotional claim made by Obayashi that they want to build a Space Elevator by 2050.  While I indicated in my own post on the matter that I thought the Obayashi story was “more concept than engineering“, I’m not as skeptical as he is about the final end-product…

Mr. Gonzalez writes that “Getting carbon nanotubes into this ribbon configuration is a significant technical hurdle“.  Actually, the Japanese solved that particular problem a few years ago.  The Japanese entry (from Shizuoka University) in the 2009 Strong Tether competition WAS in a “ribbon configuration”.  In my post on the matter, I noted that the Shizuoka entry looked “like a tape from an old VCR Cassette”.  It wasn’t strong enough, of course, but it was in the ribbon configuration.

CNT TetherBut let’s assume that Mr. Gonzalez was referring to the actual specific strength of the tether, not it’s configuration, and there, surely, we do have a long way to go.  But progress is being made.  At the University of Cincinnati CNT Workshop held in October of last year, I saw, for the first time, a heavy emphasis on the potential specific strength properties of CNTs.  In previous year’s workshops, speakers had talked about using CNTs in electrical devices, or combined with ceramics to make unique materials, or used in medical devices, etc., but very little about making “long, strong tethers”.  This has changed – at least half of the speakers in the 2011 Workshop talked about work they were doing, and problems they were running into, in exploiting the specific strength properties of CNTs.  And, a second possible material has come onto the scene – Boron Nitride nanotubes (BNNTs).  This material, while not naturally occurring in nature, is fairly easily synthesized and it seems to have nearly the same potential specific strength properties that CNTs do.

You know, I really need to put up a post about that workshop – it was very informative and very encouraging…

And finally, lets not forget the fact that this is the Japanese.  Their corporations tend to have a longer-term outlook than many others do.  And Obayashi is a MAJOR company in Japan – lots of bucks, er yen, to potentially put into a project like this.

So, I’m not putting the champagne on ice yet, but I think there is a reasonable chance that this is more than just a pipe-dream.

(Picture thumbnail is of the entry into the 2009 Strong Tether competition from Shizuoka University.  Click on it to see a full-size version of the picture.)

8 thoughts on “io9 is skeptical…

  1. dmal

    Great to hear that at least one informed mind is optimistic about mankind being able to create a tether of the required strength for a space elevator.

    The majority of people who have heard of the space elevator concept have also heard that a tether of the required strength is not a possibility in the foreseeable future, regardless of what material is used.

    Let’s hope that 2012 is the year that all this changes. If not, let’s hope that within our lifetimes, we’ll see significant progress.

    Publicly available video games have recently been used to solve molecular biological structures (e.g. Foldit and EteRNA). Gamification of problem solving has yielded scientific progress. That’s right, video games.

    I have an idea of making a video game where players must design and test fibers and tether configurations to achieve the needed strength. Can gamification of the engineering progress yield results?

    “We gotta get out of this place, if it’s that last thing we ever do!” – The Animals

    1. JCO

      I know this is a comment to a rather old post but this is a topic that has just resurfaced recently. It appears that the Obayashi company is talking again about their SE plans. I see you ignored the comment made about anchoring the tether to the bottom of the Pacific. This is the first I have ever heard of such an idea and it seem rather far fetched. Is the author not aware that the concept was for a floating platform?

      But what I would really like to know is if there is anything new that explains why the new comments from Obayashi?

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  4. dmal

    I would like to see a proposed timeline for 100 MegaUri tether development.

    The future timeline website has the space elevator starting operations around 2150. Are there any “experts” who think it will be sooner?

  5. Tom

    Getting a ‘working’ space elevator reminds me of classic national engineering project of the past. The transcontinental railroad and the transatlantic telegraph cable. For their time it was a bunch of insurmountable technical problems, but these projects changed the way people used transportation and communication.

    When you can move people & goods, in a fraction of the time & a fraction of the cost… you can get revolutionary development. Getting out and back from Space right now is limited to the size and weight of a lifting rocket… which comes with the problem of use once & throw away. The shuttle had the problem of redeployment…this wasn’t the DC-3 of LEO that was promised.

    The project should be a 10 year funded commitment, but unlike Apollo…the utility won’t stop because of lack of funding. Every nation on Earth can have a space program if you can build just 1 of these. The next phase ‘towers’ will comedown in price and have more market utility. Development of the Moon and Mars expedition get a 90% reduction in cost because the launch restriction is removed.
    That’s what a Space Elevator means to a committed plan for
    space exploration and development.

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  7. mark

    Interesting to see the potential for the use of Boron Nitride Nanotubes. Given that Boron has two stable isotopes, it may be possible to decrease the total mass of the nanotube system but use of Boron-10 rather than the natural mix of Boron 10 and Boron 11. Has anyone done any research into the potential mass differences of B-10 vs B-10/11? Might there be differences in the mechanical properties also?

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